Context is content

Nico Flores, a blogging friend from the BBC, writes a provocative post about content:

Content is nothing on its own. It only exists as part of conversations — understood not in the usual ‘blogsphere’ sense of deliberation, but as shared concerns (not my term), concerns that we must partake in to be part of communities. When I buy a novel I choose it not just because I think I might enjoy it, but also because it is also being read by other people, because it’s part of a larger movement that I’m interested in, or because it is relevant to something else I read. Reading is satisfactory only if I bring with me a certain baggage; and reading will add to my baggage, allowing me to appreciate other works and, crucially, to have more of a shared background with people around me. My point is that content–or, more precisely, the transaction of consuming content–is only meaningful as part of a wider conversation that is made up of countless related transactions.

He goes on to write about the role of discovery in content itself.

When Clay Shirky and I first saw AOL’s blogging tools and they fretted about the junk that may be created, we told them that “it’s not content until it’s linked.” That’s a glib line, but it’s in sync with Nico’s point about the larger definition of content.

Content does not exist without context. In the past, that simply meant we needed to know more about the creator or the time: The Diary of Anne Frank is about its context.

Part of what I’m trying to argue in my speculations about the fate of books is that context both defines and enriches content. Without that context, the content is poorer. The ability to link to and from content and its antecedents and successors in a chain of criticism, contribution, questioning, correction, argument, and remixing becomes part of the content itself. The timing of content matters, of course. What content does not say says a lot about it, as well. Who creates or consumes content also defines that content; chick lit is chick lit because it is written and read by chicks. And thanks to the ability of digital media to capture our content actions, the act of consumption is now an act of creation; our iPod playlists, our Amazon breadcrumbs, our Google clicks, our Flickr links, and our RSS aggregations are all collections of interaction with content that become content themselves.

But cutting off content from such conversation, in Nico’s broader use of the term — by imprisoning writing only in books or story-telling only on a disc or journalism behind a wall — we rob that content of content.

  • At the same time context depends a great deal on what the viewer; the reader, listener, or taster has experienced and knows. Without this prior knowledge the experience can be very different than what the creator intended and what others have known.

    Knowing the history surrounding the work, the creator’s life before and during the act of creation, the state of the world and/or the immediate neighborhood when the item was made gives one a radically different feel for it. For example; someone who knows nothing of Europe during the 30 years war period will not get the same things out of Eric Flint 1632 as someone who has studied the times extensively. And, of course, with greater knowledge and experience you can better assess what is and is not reliable.

    Who can you trust? What can you trust? What is reliable? All this is part of context. When those questions are answered the content becomes so much more useful. Without them the content might as well be scribbles.

  • Metacritic and Wikipedia are two great context providers. You can learn a lot about a book or album by reading the reviews or the history of the band, two things I find myself doing before a purchase. I don’t agree that books imprison words though because many authors are creating web pages with discussion forums for the release of their books.

    Just because you can’t write on a Monet it doesn’t mean you can’t have a good discussion about it. I don’t think an author can prevent discussion (imprison) about a book even if they wanted to. Of course giving words a creative commons license and putting them online would help but I don’t think they’re absolutely required for good context.

  • This is precisely what broadcasters have a major problem with. They are used to lectures, not conversations. But broadcast will increasingly fade to filling the role it is designed for, carrying live feeds, information that has zero (or very little) shelf life. But most content does have shelf life. If fact, most content needs shelf life to aggregate context and value.

    This is also why merely shifting broadcast video onto the Internet misses the point. This content generates almost no content by being essentially rebroadcast on demand through ABC’s Website. Only once that video has been picked up and sprinkled throughout the Web and given lots of context does it begin to aggregate value beyond production. Until the old guard (big media) understands and harnesses this fact, they will continue to be marginalized.

  • Over the air lectures won’t be going away any time soon. They have their purpose, and some people like them. But, more and more they’ll become lectures and discussions. Oprah has this sort of thing already with her follow up show on the Oxygen Channel, and shows such as Battlestar Galactica have websites where viewers can discuss events. Expect this sort of thing to expand.

    Idea: On some show have a scene where one of the cast goes online to chat with a friend. Said friend being a viewer who wins a contest. The chat being done in character. And so long as it’s in character, no subject is off-limits. How’s that for interactivity?

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